Shakespeare in the Park is one of the true joys of being in New York City in the hot summer. Last month, we were gifted with the glorious Julius Caesar, and regardless of your political persuasion, it was a thrilling night of theatre, even with the protesters yelling their silliness in the background. I must admit, though, that another production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream didn’t excite me that much initially. It’s a beautiful lovely play that is over-done in outdoor theaters across the nation and beyond. It’s overly long, in my mind, and once the weddings take place, it should end, like the rest of Shakespeare comedies do. But all that changed when I saw the casting notices.
It really is the battle between Oberon and Titania that drives Puck forward into the mischief she creates due to the disturbance of Nature caused by a fairy dispute. There isn’t enough heaviness in this dispute, with Nielsen’s Puck making it all a big silly joke rather then mischief in it’s essence. It doesn’t really add up to much in the end, playing far too broadly with gags and joke-shop props. Her silliness feels forced and out of place in her wildly uneven performance that almost rescues itself in the last ten minutes with her lovingly spoken monologues that wrap this play up. Director deBessonet let Nielsen ride too easily on her trademark quirkiness while ignoring the Puck’s darkness. It appears that Nielsen needs a strong arm and a clearer vision to guide her through from beginning to end.
Ashford (Sunday in the Park with George, Sylvia) on the other hand, although not the Helena one would imagine straight away, is absolutely pitch perfect and hysterical as the young lady desperately in love with Demetrius, played with a handsome strong charm by the always excellent Alex Hernandez (Kingdom Come). Her physical humor and silliness is nowhere near realistic, as was her spectacular portrayal of a terrible ballerina in You Can’t Take It With You which she won a Tony Award for, but realism is not what this production is going for. Her campy fawning and adoration of the sexy Demetrius is wildly out of control, but has a core of authenticity that makes it sing. The other lady lover, Hermia, portrayed by the delicious Shalita Grant (Tony nominated for Vanya and Sonya and Marsha and Spike) needs to up her game a little as Ashford clearly steals the show away from all four of the young lovers. Kyle Beltran (The Flick) matches Hernandez well in charm and spunk, but was most definitely more on Grant’s level than Ashford’s in the humor department. Not that this was a competition, as Helena definitely has the more hilarious part as written. But if it was…., we know who would be taking home the Gold.